DESPITE SACKING OF CMD PARVEZ AHMAD, J&K BANK CONTINUES TO DEFY RTI ACT
New Delhi: Last week, when Parvez Ahmad, chairman and managing director (CMD) of Jammu & Kashmir Bank (J&K Bank) was sacked, there was a general air of jubilation in the state as he was allegedly involved in various financial irregularities in loan dispersals, among other issues. While activists are still skeptical about how far the authorities would go to actually cleanse up the bank, it is a one man crusade by Jammu-based right to information (RTI) activist, Raja Muzaffar Bhat, who is still fighting a relentless battle to bring transparency into the bank’s operations.
Despite orders by the Central Information Commission (CIC) in 2012 and subsequently by the State Administrative Council (SAC) of J&K on 22 November 2018, the bank refuses to come under the RTI Act. In fact, as a counter to the CIC order, in 2010, the bank approached the High Court and brought in a stay, which has still not been lifted. J&K government owns 59% stake in the bank.
Soon after the CMD was sacked, Bhat stated to Khabar, a TV channel, that, “It is a good step by the government; we only hope its intentions are to bring about transparency and accountability to this premier financial institution of the State and that it won’t be just a hog wash.’’
As soon as the J&K RTI Act came into force in 2009, Bhat has been appealing to the government to bring the J&K Bank under the ambit of the RTI Act. Says he, “Finally the state’s chief information commissioner gave an order to this effect in 2012. However, the bank filed a petition in the J&K High Court in its Jammu branch and was successful in getting a stay order. Till today, the stay order has not been lifted!’’
On 22 November, 2018, the state administrative council (SAC) in its meeting decided that J&K Bank be brought under the ambit of the RTI Act. Bhat filed an RTI application to the governor’s office requesting the following information:
Certified copy of the order issued by SAC/govt of J&K declaring J&K Bank a public authority and bringing it under the ambit of the J&K RTI Act 2009
List of the first appellate authorities (FAAs) and public information officers (PIOs) designated by the bank in compliance with SAC’s orders, along with their email ids and landline numbers
The governor’s office forwarded the RTI application to the finance department, the general administration department (GAD) and to the Chairman of the J&K Bank.
‘Bhat had to file a first appeal as no information came by. The FAA too stated that the limited information supplied by the finance department was justified.
Subsequently, Feroq Ahmad Khan filed a second appeal with the state information commissioner. The J&K Bank representative contended during the hearing in March 2019 that the bank does not come under the ambit of the RTI and therefore no information can be provided under this law. He also reiterated that since the matter is pending with the High Court, the SIC order holds no water.
The CIC observed that “the said stay order does not in any way affect and does not have any bearing on the order of the CIC and J&K Bank cannot take resort to the interim order of Hon’ble High Court.’’ The CIC has directed the bank to implement the SAC order and to explain how the court order interferes with it.
Bhat says despite facing defamation filed against him by the Bank, he relentlessly continued his pursuit to throw light on the grey areas in the Bank’s functioning.
“For example, I asked the Bank that it has shown a net profit of Rs465 crore for the fiscal ending 31 March 2019. I raised a simple question, the Bank has sold its 2.40 per cent stake in MetLife amounting to Rs185 crore. I sought explanation as to how the sale proceeds from selling of its stake in MetLife could become a part of the Bank’s net profit,” the RTI activist had told .
He has raised many other questions through his RTI applications which have been brushed aside by the Bank’s management.
“I raised a query as to what prompted the Bank to sell 1,800 crore of its bad debt portfolio to assets reconstruction companies (ARCs) at a discount of over 40% while the same borrowers reflected as bad debts by J&K Bank owed money to other banks where they were making repayments without any distress sale of such debts by those banks,” Bhat said alleging that there is a strong reason to believe that a huge deal of over Rs200 crore was made by selling these debts at over 40% discount to ARCs.
Bhat also wanted the probe into mismanagement extended beyond the tenure of the sacked chairman Pervez Ahmed.
Quite clearly, sacking of one individual from the bank is not enough when all information pertaining to the larger public interest remains in secrecy